Of all the many reasons to look forward to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which sees a limited theatrical release on Wednesday before it begins streaming on Netflix on December 18, the main draw will undoubtedly be the final performance by the late Chadwick Boseman. In the second adaptation of an August Wilson play coproduced by Denzel Washington, Boseman plays Levee, the talented trumpet player whose overreaching ambitions lead him to try to steal not only the limelight from Ma Rainey, the legendary “Mother of the Blues” played by the equally formidable Viola Davis, but also her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). “Levee is probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest role for an African American man ever, because it absolutely encapsulates them—their pain, their vision, their dreams, their talent,” Davis tells the Los Angeles Times’ Jen Yamato. Boseman was “an artist being fitted with an August Wilson garment that couldn’t have been more perfect. And he wore it beautifully. He just played the role beautifully.”
Set in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second play in Wilson’s Century Cycle of ten works, one for each decade of the Black experience in America in the twentieth century. Fences, set in the 1950s, followed, and Wilson, who died too young at sixty in 2005, wrote the screenplay adaptation himself. Washington, who intends to produce the entire Cycle, directed and starred with Davis in the 2016 film, and he tells Yamato that “Viola can do anything . . . She’s a once-in-a-generation talent.”
As Ma Rainey, Davis is “little short of stunning in the kind of brassy, feather-waving, no-prisoners-taking diva showcase she’s rarely attempted,” writes the LAT’s Justin Chang. Director George C. Wolfe, the actor and playwright probably best known for directing the Broadway production of Angels in America in 1993, and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who adapted his own play Lackawanna Blues for Wolfe to direct in 2005, “have taken Wilson’s great work and ruthlessly pared it down to essentials,” writes Chang. “There are workmanlike patches, but remarkably few dull ones. Every formal choice, from the exquisitely caressed lighting of Tobias A. Schlieeser’s images to the unifying orchestrations of Branford Marsalis’s score, ultimately feels in service of a story that barrels ahead with terrific urgency. At just over ninety minutes, this Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels not just adapted but accelerated, as if it were racing to meet the deadline its own characters keep putting off.”
Most of the action is confined to a recording studio in Chicago, where Ma Rainey is keeping her white manager (Jeremy Shamos) and producer (Jonny Coyne) waiting. Her band—Levee, guitar and trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman)—rehearses and shoots the breeze. At Slant, Dan Rubins finds that “it’s Turman’s Toledo who most memorably emerges from Levee’s shadow: He’s the oldest of the musicians and the clearest-eyed in his surety that the rewards of individual artistic glory, the kind that Ma embraces and Levee pursues, will make scant difference in improving Black lives in lasting ways.”
Levee’s written a fresh, jazzy arrangement of Ma Rainey’s signature tune, the one that gives the film its title, but when she arrives, Ma will insist on sticking with the standard jug band version in all its rawness. At RogerEbert.com, Odie Henderson points out that, while her manager “bears the brunt of her tantrums, little sympathy is afforded him because he’ll still get the sweeter end of the deal if he bears that abuse. ‘All they care about is my voice,’ says Ma. So, why not make them earn it? ‘They hear it come out,’ she says of white people listening to the blues, ‘but they don’t know how it got there.’”
While the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin argues that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is “one of those rare and cherishable cases that feels like something more than filmed theater,” the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney finds it “too inextricably welded to its theatrical conception to become fully cinematic.” Even so, “watching actors of this caliber lose themselves in characters of such aching humanity is ample reward, with Boseman’s towering work standing as a testament to a blazing talent lost too soon,” writes Rooney. “It’s impossible to watch his astonishingly gutsy performance without the sorrowful feeling that he’s acting like he's running out of time.” As Variety’s Peter Debruge puts it, Wilson “conceived Levee as a tragic figure, and real life doubled down.”
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